“Welcome to the 7th grade—that hellish, shaky bridge you all must cross before you become members of the enviable high school elite.”
That’s how Mr. Simonet greets his students, first day, first thing, in the movie, Pay It Forward, which was released in 2000.
Was 7th grade like that for you, with all its adolescence and awkwardness?
It can be tough enough, but life is never one-dimensional, one-layered. The challenges are always many-layered, and so perhaps we do better to see “7th grade” as a metaphor for life in general—the hellish, shaky bridge that it can so often be. On Mr. Simonet’s face we see extensive scarring, and later in the movie we learn how it happened. He had been defending his mother, whom his father repeatedly beat up. It took him years to summon up the courage and say no to his father’s abusiveness. In response, the father clobbered him, knocked him out, dragged him around to the back of the house, poured gasoline on him, lit him up.
This is the complexity behind what Mr. Simonet is coming from, when he says, “Yes, there’s a world out there, and even if you decide you don’t want to meet it, it’s going to hit you right smack in the face.”
The world is definitely hitting Trevor right smack in the face. Trevor, played by Haley Joel Osment, is one of Mr. Simonet’s fresh-faced 7th grade students, but don’t let that youthful face fool you. Trevor is hurting. Trevor is trying to cross the hellish, shaky bridge of his mom’s alcoholism, her on-again off-again efforts at recovery, her habit of repeatedly taking back her abusive alcoholic husband.
Then there’s school, where there are friends, and there are bullies. Metal detectors are at the school doors, but in the scene right before the one we saw, Trevor spots one of the bullies sneaking a knife through the metal detectors. School is a place where you can get really hurt, or killed.
Twenty years after this movie was released, how many school shootings have there been? And twenty years later, what has our progress been as a nation, in terms of common sense gun safety policies?
“What if the world is just a big disappointment?” says Mr. Simonet, and Trevor, that sweet-faced boy, knows it. We wish it were otherwise. We wanted safety and enjoyment for ourselves as children, and we want this for all children everywhere.
Too often, it is not so.
So, the temptation really is to get across the 7th grade bridge fast. Says Mr. Simonet, “You want to hold your breath, close your eyes, not think about anything until it’s over.” But then he says, “Well, I’m here to tell you that’s not an option in this class.”
And I want to say that too. Mr. Simonet and I speak with one voice. The temptation to hurry across is huge—to hold your breath, close your eyes, not think about anything until it’s over–but West Shore exists to counter that, to counter spiritual sleepwalking.
That’s why this church exists.
At West Shore, we emphasize that the only way out is through. The only way out is through practices and behaviors that develop awareness, bring healing, build resilience, and spread joy. This is what’s happening when you participate in worship regularly; or when you find a place of service within our beyond these walls; or when you engage in meditation or prayer or some other creative way of attuning with something larger than one’s ego; or when you study religion and ethics and other important issues of truth and meaning; or when your giving takes a “stretch” mode and you are putting your finances—as much as possible–in service to Love.
Practice these spiritual disciplines and what happens is that our brains are rewired in positive ways. We’ve talked about this before. It’s the “gospel of neuroplasticity.” Our brains are not fatally stuck in ruts. Our brains can be rewired by our intentions and our actions. Slowly at first, but with certain progress, we start to feel more compassion and gratitude. We become better able to listen beyond our fears and to forgive. Joyfulness, peacefulness, wisdom begin to become habits.
In fact, there gets to be a point when we stop needing to rush across the 7th grade bridge of life. There gets to be a point when grace happens, and we personally experience that the larger Truth or Love that we are hard in search of is with even more urgency seeking us out and wanting us to be happified. We just don’t have to push the river anymore. We can actually sense a creative and wonderful Spirit moving in the details. Call it God, call it Universal Life Force, call it the Sacred, call it the Mystery.
And we are amazed. It’s the Interdependent Web of All Existence but we are relating to it no longer as just a bunch of words, but from a place of feeling. We are feeling it, as if from the inside.
It’s the feeling of freedom. Freedom to live more expansively, with courage and love. Freedom to do what we can to save the parts of the world that are broken, and freedom to savor the parts of the world that are beautiful.
Freedom to savor, freedom to save.
That’s what our West Shore 7th grade classroom is strengthening us to be able to do. That’s what this West Shore classroom of real life is teaching.
So as you cross the bridge of life, don’t hold your breath, don’t close your eyes. Open them. Breathe in deep. Let’s be mindful of what we’re doing. That’s the first step to developing our freedom.
And then, second of all, there must be respect. It’s the student in the film clip coming to the first class of the year, late. But having a bad hair day does not cut it as an excuse. “I’m going to be here every day for you,” says Mr. Simonet to his class, “and so I expect you to be here for me.” If each of us can respect what we are doing as a congregation—if each of us can be here every day for each other bringing our energy and our time and our money–then “7th grade” is going to be all right.
We’re going to make it just fine.
It’s about developing and deepening our freedom. Being conscious of crossing the bridge. Showing up every day to each other, out of respect.
And then this, third of all: remembering that the goal is not perfection, but wholeness. This is so important, since we can feel disqualified from going the distance because we are not perfect. Mr. Simonet, with his scars, with his horrific father, could have felt absolutely disqualified from being a teacher. Trevor, so insecure, could have felt absolutely disqualified from raising his hand and saying a word in class.
Too often, there is this broken record running in our heads, telling us that to make a difference in the world, imperfection of some kind or other must be absent from our lives. The circumstances must already be ideal. We need to already have our personal act together. I have to already be rich to pledge; can’t pledge until I’ve got absolute money certainty, oh no. I just have to hold back until all the uncertainties are smoothed out: until the kids are grown, the job is secure, relationships are fantastic, all the important spiritual questions about God, immortality, the meaning of life, the existence of extraterrestrial life, are the Browns going to the playoffs next year, and on and on, are definitively answered. Insisting that, to be eligible to make a difference, we’ve already got to be the peace we want to create, we’ve already got to be the love we want to see, we’ve already got to embody the generosity we want to generate.
Fat chance. Perfectionism like this prevents the Mr. Simonets among us from ever showing our faces. True wholeness is never an absence of imperfection. There’s always going to be problems. But wholeness is more about the presence of larger vision in the midst of problems. In the midst of problems, the presence of larger meaning. You can have a chronic illness and still be whole in your heart and spirit. You can. You may have a terminal illness and you are different from others of us only because you have a clearer notion of the how and the when of your death; but nevertheless, in your heart and in your spirit, you might be more alive and vital than 20 of us put together!
Wholeness is believing that, in the face of every disappointment, we can still take the things we don’t like and flip them upside down, and we can start that today.
So we go the distance in developing and expressing our freedom. In showing up every day to each other, out of respect. In remembering that the goal is not perfection, but wholeness.
If an annual pledge to a church is anything, it’s that. That’s the spiritual heart of it. That’s what it is.
We go the distance, towards the finish line, and that finish line is all about changing lives. “This is your assignment,” says the words on the chalkboard in our movie clip for today: “Think of an idea to change our world—and put it into ACTION!”
Let me tell you a story of how that’s happened because of West Shore. So many stories. Here’s just one, which member Katherine Gaston shared with me recently:
“Four years ago,” she says, “I was operated on for a large brain tumor. I had been scheduled to preach the day before and Barb Walker offered to read my sermon and manage the service short notice. Two church members sat with [my husband] Warren during the long hours at the Clinic. Another member who worked there came to the building far away from hers to assure Warren of my surgeon’s great reputation.
“I received over 70 cards which meant so much. ‘Take Them A Meal’ was organized to provide dinners every other day for 3 weeks. Folks sent coupons for fast food near us. Others offered to come be in the house if Warren had to leave the home.
“I came to church before I was ready to see people as Warren was preaching that Sunday. Dave Blazer offered to hide me in the balcony and assured me I couldn’t be seen if folks looked up. (It was summer.)
“When I came back to church, I was overwhelmed with noise and activity. Several members would notice and lead me to a quiet place.
“I have preached sermons or given a talk since then, most recently for a Pastoral Care Service. I’ve shared my concerns about my functioning and fears of the future and have been met with positive response and understanding. No one avoids me.
Katherine concludes, “I know there are many examples of kindnesses given and received by others as West Shore weaves a fabric of love among us.” And then she says to me, “I hope you learn of the many more.”
And let me tell you, I am learning. I am learning about the Wonderful Church we are co-creating. What we are doing within these walls and beyond. I just don’t want to know what Rocky River and Cleveland would be like, if West Shore never existed….
It all brings to mind something paleontologist Stephen J. Gould once said, right after 9/11. He was speaking about what he called “The Great Asymmetry.” He points out that, from a distance, when we look at the record of history, it appears that “decency and depravity are mixed in equal measure.” There’s roughly equal amounts of good times and bad times as we scan the record of the ages.
Gould then says that, very naturally, we may go from here to conclude that, over the ages, the number of decent people and the number of depraved people that have lived are also roughly equal. That becomes the way of explaining why good times and bad times over history get roughly equal billing.
But this is where Gould objects. He says, “we need to expose … the fallacy of this conclusion so that, in this moment of crisis, we may reaffirm an essential truth too easily forgotten, and regain some crucial comfort too readily forgone.” Now he gets to his main point: “Good and kind people outnumber all others by thousands to one. The tragedy of human history lies in the enormous potential for destruction in rare acts of evil, not in the high frequency of evil people. Complex systems can only be built step by step, whereas destruction requires but an instant. Thus, in what I like to call the Great Asymmetry, every spectacular incident of evil will be balanced by 10,000 acts of kindness, too often unnoted and invisible as the ”ordinary” efforts of a vast majority.” Now listen to what Gould wants each of us to do about this: “We have a duty, almost a holy responsibility, to record and honor the victorious weight of these innumerable little kindnesses, when an unprecedented act of evil so threatens to distort our perception of ordinary human behavior.”
Again, the unprecedented act of evil he’s referring to here is 9/11, but it doesn’t require 9/11s to distort our perception of ordinary human behavior. It’s so easy to despair.
So we must remember the Great Asymmetry. We must write it on our hearts. Yes, there is enormous potential for destruction in rare acts of evil–destruction in an instant—but we can balance that and we can keep the world on course towards something better through our 10,000 acts of kindness. Yes we can.
The kindnesses that were shown to Katherine Gaston.
It is our duty–our holy responsibility–to record and honor this.
We must keep on telling the stories.
The victorious weight of the innumerable little kindnesses….
The victorious weight of little kindnesses yet in the making….
PAY IT FORWARD RITUAL
Which brings us to this…..
Mr. Simonet in the Pay It Forward movie says to his class, “I’m going to be here every day for you…” And I’m saying that to you too. I’m here for you.
Right now, it’s taking the form of an assignment. In a moment, the ushers will guide sections one at a time to come forward and receive something from me. My money. I am giving everyone in this building, of all ages, my money, in increments of a dollar.
Your assignment is to “pay it forward.” It’s Trevor’s wonderful world-changing idea in the movie. Pay it forward. Put my money which is now your money in service to Lovingkindness.
Life has given so much—can you share the blessing with others, no strings attached?
My reasons for inviting you into this ritual are two-fold:
- I want you to experience something beautiful—the beauty of putting money in service to Love.
- But this is also a time to think about people whose kind actions have paved the way for you to be here now. Think about them. Pay that forward….
As you consider what you will do with your dollar, you might want to get with some others, to share your ideas and listen to theirs. To be creative in working with them to figure out how to use your dollars to pay the kindness forward.
- I know of one person who is a parking meter angel, and if they see a meter where the time’s run out, they’ll feed it to help a person avoid an expensive ticket…
- But what happens when we combine our dollars? What bigger things might be possible?
That’s one level of the Pay it Forward ritual I’m inviting you into.
But here’s the next. The higher level.
It’s about going back to that haunting thought of what would life be like without this wonderful church.
My hope is that the Pay it Forward ritual becomes for you a powerful symbol of the meaning of making an annual pledge to West Shore, and what happens when we all step up together.
Here, you receive the kindness of generations that have gone before—this must be so because there was a vibrant community already in place when you arrived, sustained by many hands and hearts that went before you.
They stepped up together.
And then there is the kindness you receive in the here and now, in the form of hugs freely given, the feeling of belonging to something larger than yourself—the feeling of having found your people. There are all the classes and events that get you thinking and feeling. There’s the worship and music that bring you to tears and bring you to joy. There’s the calls to justice that rally you around important initiatives which are making the world a better place. There’s the calls to service or leadership where you experience yourself learning things and doing things that amaze you–you are changed for the better.
If we continue stepping up together, there will only be more and more of all these good things to come. That is what we will do with your money.
Just a few weeks ago, on Feb 9, we heard testimony at the Informational Meeting about the Black Lives Matter banner from some of the African Americans among us: that that banner makes this place feel safe to them; that they may struggle feeling positive about white people because of everything and yet that banner gives them hope; that that banner is why there are here.
The hundred plus people in the room on Feb 9 needed to hear that. We all need to hear that today. We need to know that we are needed in Cleveland, for the good we do.
If making an annual pledge to West Shore is about anything, it’s about breathing in all the good things, and then breathing them out, paying it forward….
So: go on out there and trigger a cascade of kindness
Go on out there and generate a positive contagion of generosity
Again, the challenge here is in being creative. For example: Go to lunch today with friends, and at the restaurant, combine your dollars to pay for a stranger’s meal. Who knows what chain of events you’ll be setting up by this….
Or: Add a couple of your own dollars to the dollar you get, and make a donation to some worthy cause. That’s what our children will be doing after this service, when I meet with them in the chapel, and I give them my money, and I bless their efforts in our world.
Or: Talk to other people about combining your dollars to make a $25 microloan to someone across the world through an online agency known as Kiva. Says its website, “Kiva empowers individuals to lend to an entrepreneur across the globe. By connecting people we can create relationships beyond financial transactions, and build a global community expressing support and encouragement of one another.”
So many possibilities for using your dollar! It’s about taking your proper place in the Great Asymmetry that we heard Stephen J. Gould talk about a moment ago. My hope is that each of you really gets into this, and that the more energy you give it, the more open you’ll become to the river of generosity that already flows within you.
Even if, some days, you might not feel it. Even if your normal state these days, in the shadow of the coronavirus and all the bad and scary news, is a sense of discomfort, if not scarcity and fear.
Fact is, the river always flows in us, with fierce joy—it is the Spirit of Life within, a Divine Spark, the God of our understanding. It’s still there. And maybe you will feel it through your giving….
Maybe that will happen for you.
One last thing: please PLEASE tell me your story. What did you end up doing with your dollar? What happened? What did it feel like? Tell me the story. Send it to me by email at email@example.com.
I just keep going back to Mr. Simonet and Trevor, from the movie. Mr. Simonet’s undiminished sense of hope and possibility, despite the brutal story that his scars tell. And then Trevor: This 11 year old—feeling absolutely uncertain in his world. Shaken by his mother’s struggles with alcoholism and an abusive relationship. Shaken by the rampant bullying in his school. In no way is he already the peace or love or generosity he wants to create in the world, in no way is he already there. Yet his eyes are open as he crosses the bridge of life. His eyes are open. He shows up to class every day with respect, and he gives what he can. He pays it forward, and because of that, what changes is everything.
THIS is going the distance.
And now I invite you up, in the ritual of Pay It Forward.